“Derrick Adams: Buoyant,” on view through November 29th at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, first attracts viewers with its vibrant colors and joyful scenes.
High-key orange sherbet. Neon yellow. Electric pink. All popping against rich, azure blue backgrounds.
Men, women and children relax and play on inflatable pool toys – floaties – which give name to the series of paintings, “Floater,” from which these works are drawn.
Leisure. Carefree Saturday afternoons. Summertime and the living is easy.
As Adams’ “Floater” series evolved, he began adding textiles to his acrylic on paper paintings. Only when seen from inches away does it become apparent that the artist cut up actual swimsuits to use for the swimsuits on the figures in his works.
Doing so not only surprises, but adds a textural, material quality.
Look closer still.
Adams is Black. All the figures are Black.
These, however, are not the typical depictions of Black people most often seen in the mass media, news media or art museums.
These Black figures aren’t protesting. They aren’t playing sports. They aren’t being beaten on by police.
These are Black people at leisure. Black people taking it easy.
The exhibition begins with a source material Adams’ used to envision the series, a feature on Martin Luther King, Jr. vacationing in Jamaica from Ebony magazine.
This wasn’t MLK at a pulpit, wearing a suit or addressing thousands in front of the Lincoln Memorial – the settings most Americans are familiar with seeing him in. This was MLK on vacation, in swim trunks, reading the newspaper in bed.
When Adams discovered these photos, he knew he’d found something special. A familiar face observed through a completely unfamiliar filter.
Think back through every art museum you’ve ever visited. They contain innumerable pictures of white leisure. Art history is full of them. Fragonard’s The Swing. Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. All of Degas’ orchestra, horseracing and ballet crowds. Fox hunts. Sailing. Card players.
White people at leisure.
Outside of Adams’ “Floater” series, try bringing to mind a single image from art history of a Black person at leisure.
Adams’ breaks new ground here. That makes these pictures radical.
Black people and water.
The transatlantic slave trade. Segregated swimming pools. Whites-only water fountains. Firehoses.
One of Adams’ figures floats a watermelon. How is the artist confronting racist stereotypes?
Adams individualizes the skin tones of his figures, again upending white stereotypes of “Blackness.”
“Buoyant” attracts viewers on a surface level – Adams’ paintings are “’grammable” – careful observers, however, find his genius by plunging into the extraordinary depths of their meaning.